Coronavirus

Anti-Trump Democrats Learn That Internet Censorship Blocks Them Too

Anyone who wants to restrict free speech should contemplate what it would be like if your enemy gets to choose what gets said.

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Last fall, the most-enlightened folks among us praised the move by some tech giants to police and even censor political ads. Sure, back in the day, Barack Obama had used Facebook and micro-targeting to good effect. Indeed, his campaign's embrace of new ways of reaching young people (including using data from "unknowing users") showed how liberals generally were so much more tech-savvy and forward-looking than old-school campaigns run by the likes of John McCain and Mitt Romney, who might as well have been wearing spats and sporting pocket watches. Then 2016 happened and it turned out that Donald Trump was a master of social media and Hillary Clinton was revealed as the hapless grandma who couldn't even work her Jitterbug phone.  The super-retro real-estate mogul from Queens—who doesn't even use email, fer chrissakes!—connected tremendously with all the mouth-breathers out there on Facebook, Twitter, Pornhub, whatever, and squeaked into the White House. Trump's digital-media guy, Brad Parscale (Brad!) was the genius, while Clinton's Robby Mook, once-always described as a guru, was the chump, a digital-era Joe Shlabotnik.

To the technoscenti, the obvious answer to such a turn of affairs was to ban or restrict political advertising online, often in the name of saving the Republic. Jack Dorsey of Twitter paused from taking meditation retreats in genocide-scarred Myanmar long enough to announce that he was banning political ads from his microblogging site, and people who only belatedly realized that non-liberals could be savvy at making memes breathed a sigh of relief. The same people lost their shit when Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg said he would continue to allow ads and he wasn't even going to fact check them, either. Hadn't this alien lifeform done enough damage to America already? When Google, the 800-lb. gorilla of online advertising, announced plans to restrict various forms of targeting and to police "false claims," there was much rejoicing. As Kara Swisher, the founder of the great Recode platform who now writes for The New York Times, put it, Google's decision to heavily restrict meant that Parscale "will now have one less weapon in his digital arsenal to wage his scorched-earth re-election campaign."

But as Techdirt's Mike Masnick writes, it turns out that censorship tends to work in mysterious ways, at least if you don't understand that you won't always be the censor. Here we are, in an election year during a full-blown pandemic whose severity many want to blame on Donald Trump's inaction. Trump's political opponents understandably want to flood the internet with messages about just how bad the "cheeto in chief" really is, but they're running into the very restrictions they were applauding last fall. "Content moderation at scale is impossible to do well, writes Masnick,

and…things are especially tricky when it comes to content moderation and political advertising. Now, when you mix into that content moderation to try to stop disinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic and you run up against… politicians facing blocks in trying to advertise about Trump's leadership failures in response to the pandemic.

He cites a report from Protocol that reads in part:

Staffers of several Democratic nonprofits and digital ad firms realized this week that they would not be able to use Google's dominant ad tools to spread true information about President Trump's handling of the outbreak on YouTube and other Google platforms. The company only allows PSA-style ads from government agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and trusted health bodies like the World Health Organization. Multiple Democratic and progressive strategists were rebuked when they tried to place Google ads criticizing the Trump administration's response to coronavirus, officials within the firms told Protocol. (emphasis in original.)

Masnick notes that while political orgs face various forms of blocking and restriction, federal agencies do not and they are pumping out all sorts of public-service announcements and other ads geared around preventing the spread of coronavirus. Given that "this administration appears to view the entire apparatus of the federal government as solely part and parcel of the Trump re-election campaign, that basically means that Trump gets free reign over Google ads." He stresses that he's not criticizing Google but rather trying to underscore a point that always needs to be made when talking about online speech:

If you do content moderation, almost every "policy" you put in place will come back to bite you when you realize that, in practice, something will happen that seems insane even when you have a perfectly logical policy in place.

Masnick's whole piece is here.

Let's take this a step further: Yes, every individual platform has a right to ban or suspend whoever or whatever it wants (and thanks to much-beleaguered Section 230, every platform has the right to moderate some user-generated content without putting itself at legal risk, too). I'm sympathetic to the argument that some platforms want to limit viewpoint diversity or exclude certain types of speech and information as a way of creating or maintaining community.

But as you approach the size and scope of a Facebook, YouTube (owned by Google), and Twitter, the only real way forward is to trust your users to practice media literacy and to give them the tools they need to create the user experience they want. Masnick is right that content moderation, including picking what political ads are acceptable and which ones aren't, is virtually impossible to do at scale. You either end up spending all of your time chasing down complaints or you create filters that simply block a ton of content in which your users are actually interested.

Just as it is in meatspace, the answer to bad, misleading, stupid, hateful speech is more and better speech. The power of online persuasion, including and possibly especially the role of Russian trolls in the 2016 election, has been wildly overstated. In an age of deepfakes, good-faith arguments, all sorts of data and versions of reality, and the growing participation of more types of people with all sorts of viewpoints, consensus will be harder to reach than ever. The beauty of online forums is that they give us more control over what we encounter even as they force us to check our premises. That all goes away if and when we cede control to gatekeepers who may not be any smarter or disinterested than we are.

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  1. no speech should be censored. words will never hurt me and whatnot …

    1. Ahahahaha! Talk about karma in action! Yes, censorship is a double-edged sword. So is “gun control”, for that matter. In fact, so are self-righteous exceptions to all of our rights and liberties. It’s interesting to see just who doesn’t realize that.

      1. I’ve been reading some progressives are frustrated by how hard it is in their states to actually buy a gun.

  2. I can’t remember exactly how it goes, but there’s an old saying that starts out “What goes around . . .” And I seem to remember another gem concerning geese and ganders.

  3. “who only belatedly realized that non-liberals could be savvy at making memes breathed a sigh of relief”

    The left can’t meme.

    1. Matt Welch hardest hit.

  4. Never ceases to amaze how statist douchenozzles can’t seem to wrap their brains around the idea that their preferred policies could be turned around and used against them. It’s almost like maybe they’re not very bright, but that can’t possibly be true: they’re always assuring everyone around them that they’re super-duper smart. Their mommies told them so it must be true.

    1. Especially while the White House is held by DONALD TRUMP! Isn’t he Orange Hitler? Why on earth would we want to give HIM power?

  5. If you do content moderation, almost every “policy” you put in place will come back to bite you when you realize that, in practice, something will happen that seems insane even when you have a perfectly logical policy in place.

    Turns out, idiots are confused by things.

    and thanks to much-beleaguered Section 230, every platform has the right to moderate

    See? Idiot pretending that Congressionally-enacted ‘right to moderate’ is totally different from censorship and/or a good idea.

    1. My understanding of section 230 is that judges and legislatures had already decided that it was ok to sue “publishers” for bias, and thus section 230 write into law what was obvious to everyone with half a brain: you shouldn’t be able to be sued for bias just for moderating your web site.

      IOW, section 230 is a government fix to a government-created problem.

      1. A bad court ruling meant if you moderated you could get sued because you had involvement. It created a financial incentive to never remove anything. 230 fixed that oopsie.

        If removed no judge would rule that way today.

        Also, if removed it would be replaced with something else just saying you’re liable.

  6. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
    I feel like I left a loaded revolver on the Resolute desk.
    Be care who you piss off, you might be working for them someday.
    and other pithy quotes.

  7. No, unfortunately they are just learning that they need to call for “holistic” moderation instead of writing down rules that can also be applied to them. There is no principle here.

    1. What is the ancient Chinese secret herb for moderation?

      1. I know a market in Wuhan where you can get it.

        1. Whooosh! That flu right over me!

      2. Calgon?

    2. I think all they’re really asking for is some standards… double standards.

  8. the only real way forward is to trust your users to practice media literacy and to give them the tools they need to create the user experience they want.

    No one trusts the users, least of all the platform.

    1. “least of all the platform”

      Which is why “CDA 230 is essential to the internet” is a hysterical argument because they only want it due to how much of a fucking liability their users are. The argument recognizes and admits the problem.

      1. Nevermind that only the government could confuse a random internet guys rant-filled post with an article put in a publication.

  9. Welcome to the human condition people. Intellectual consistency not required.

    1. Nor very likely.

  10. So on the one hand, they hate electioneering communications that distort our democracy with half-truths and lies.

    On the other hand, they want to run ads with statistics on how many people Trump killed with Coronavirus.

    Is that the situation?

    1. Pretty much. If anything, it’s surprising the regulators didn’t hand-wave away the concerns ‘because Trump’ in this particular case.

      Apparently someone accidentally carried out their function correctly, and obviously they should be fired for it…

      /sarc

      That said, maybe they should have realized that giving the administration carte blanche to control the narrative might have been stupid before they did it. We warned about this specific problem long before Trump came into office. If you plan on the government being filled with angels, you’ve already fucked up. Trump, Obama, and Bush types are inevitable. In fact, they’re the norm.

  11. When things go too far, you end up with fools like Republican Missouri Senator Josh Hawley trying to do the same thing, but from the right.

  12. Free speech is irrelevant when truth doesn’t matter.

    1. The significance of the truth is an assessment that matters more when made by the audience than by the speaker.

      Anyone spounting any degree of nonsense, falsehood, or propaganda can only make a difference if people choose to listen to them. Whether it’s Alex Jones claiming that his toothpase can kill the novel coronavirus or Bernie Sanders claiming that price controls will somehow fix the “failure” of markets in which the government has helped to create supply shortages, the only real danger is to those who choose to believe such claims.

      1. It was a subtle reference to that fake Holocaust news. Truth doesn’t mater when the Holocaust lies are prevalent.

      2. In civilization, the purpose of communication is to convey truth, reality.

        Lies coerce people under the presumption or outward claim to the authority of truth to make decisions in the interest of the liar as opposed to the best interests of those being lied to.

    2. Truth has the advantage that it *will* come around and bite you.

      1. It has to.

        Truth is reality.

  13. Since the companies that are now openly doing this kind of filtering were also such strong advocates of “Net Neutrality” (so long as it only applied to the operations their platforms are customers of, and not to themselves), that should be a strong indicator as to how meaningful the “Neutrality” offered by that policy really was.

    And since the venn diagram of pundits who supported “Net Neutrality” in the form of the 2015 Open Internet Order and those who cheerled the early phases of this version of censorship by the handful of platform companies who control nearly all online advertising is very nearly a perfect circle, maybe those pundits should stop and consider what their actual principles are when it comes to having the terms of “acceptable” online speech defined by a small number of large and powerful “corporations”. From what I could gather from people I know who believed strongly in the OIO (and claimed to believe in the “spirit” of it more than the letter of it), the alleged purpose of it was to prvent the possibility of ISPs somehow achieiving something approaching the level of “monopoly power” that was already held by google/Alphabet and facebook and then leveraging that power to do something substantively similar to what the “true beleivers” have generally applauded when it was announced by google/youtube/fb and to a lesser extent twitter.

  14. Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.

    Let’s not turn the 1st Amendment into an *entitlement* to call in bomb threats eh? It’s not an entitlement for the people; it’s a limitation on (!-federal-!) law.

  15. “Last fall, the most-enlightened folks among us praised the move by some tech giants to police and even censor political ads. ”

    I like to think that remark was sarcastic.

    1. Well certainly in their own minds they are the most-enlightened folks right? If they say they are, we’re obligated to acknowledge them as such.

  16. “Just as it is in meatspace, the answer to bad, misleading, stupid, hateful speech is more and better speech. The power of online persuasion, including and possibly especially the role of Russian trolls in the 2016 election, has been wildly overstated.” This. There are still people who say stuff like “Russian bots online helped Trump win.” They literally spent, as far as we know, a measly $100k on Russian trolls that did things like promote Blue Lives Matter and Black Lives Matter rallies on the same day. When the Hillary apologists went crying to big tech about how their “irresponsibility” got Trump elected (a truly asinine claim), they sought to get big tech to suppress freedom of speech and thought. And now it’s biting them in the ass, just as it always would. Those people are not real good at unintended (though not unforeseen) consequences.

    1. Just like with Hihn and Sqrly, you can instantly identify a Hank Philips post.

  17. “Last fall, the most-enlightened folks among us praised the move by some tech giants to police and even censor political ads. ”
    This reminds me of when I was in tech (retired 2 years, now), and people would crown someone in a tech discussion as “the smartest person in the room.” Rarely was that true, and almost always, following their suggestions blindly lead to failure.

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